Eliot Spitzer and the American tolerance for second chances
Everyone has been taken by surprise by the speed with which Americans have embraced the notion of gay marriage. Even progressive leaders like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were left playing catch-up. Now, it seems, sexual peccadilloes by politicians are no longer thought grave enough for them to be cast into the outer darkness forever. Are we becoming a super-liberal society? If so, what happened to the “moral majority” that dominated politics for so long?
The latest fallen pol to start over is Eliot Spitzer, the sometime governor of New York, who by day prosecuted whorehouse madams and by night enjoyed their services. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness,” he told the New York Times. “I am asking for it.” After resigning in disgrace in 2007, Spitzer served time as a talking head on CNN and Current TV, which many may think is penance enough.
Spitzer’s speedy self-rehabilitation follows on the heels of Anthony Weiner, the vain, boastful, exhibitionist U.S. congressman from New York who tweeted to women he didn’t know photographs of his briefs. While Spitzer is a top drawer hypocrite, willing to use the full force of the law against prostitutes while consorting with them on the side, Weiner is just a chump without self control or judgment. Despite this essential drawback to someone who aspires to be mayor of New York, Weiner is currently favorite to succeed Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
When it comes to brass neck, however, neither Spitzer nor Weiner come anywhere near Mark Sanford. He was the governor of South Carolina and father of four who resigned after liaising with his Argentine mistress while telling his staff that he was wandering the Appalachian Trail. Despite being the sort of weasel who gives heterosexual marriage a bad name, the good people of South Carolina were so forgiving they elected him their U.S. Congressman.
Spitzer may be a double-dealer and Weiner a mug, but Sanford is a hypocrite in every direction: a family-values Republican who unceremoniously dumped his wife and children for another woman; a fiscal conservative who blew taxpayers’ money on flights to his lover; and a law-and-order conservative who repeatedly entered his former wife’s home despite a restraining order. If that is not enough to turn the stomach, the first time Sanford introduced his 14-year-old son to the woman who broke up the family was in the full glare of cameras at his victory party.
So, what to make of this immoral political how-d’ye-do? It is not enough to say Weiner and Spitzer are New York Democrats who champion social progressivism in the nation’s most depraved Sin City after Vegas. Though that certainly plays its part. It is not easy to live a progressive lifestyle outside of the northeast and the West Coast, making havens of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. But the ability of Weiner and Spitzer to so quickly wipe their slate clean also says a lot about the insidious nature of low turnout and one-party politics.
New York is so overwhelmingly Democratic that if in the primary you win the votes of party activists — who are even more progressive than New Yorkers in general — you are usually a shoo-in at the election. Bloomberg was a rare exception, a progressive Democrat who became the GOP candidate to avoid the internecine horrors of the Democratic primaries. Even so, in 2009 he won the mayoralty with just 585,000 votes (9.3 percent) from a total electorate of 6.3 million, of whom only 18.4 percent bother to vote at all.
There may also be a difference in the nature of the comparative offenses. Weiner’s transgression was to post his underwear online while he was still wearing it. In cyberspace that barely counts as a misdemeanor, let alone a felony. Thousands of young men and women have done far worse, as two wide-eyed minutes on a search engine will attest. Their crime is one of bad taste, poor judgment, and self-regarding vanity, all of which are qualities most politicians possess in abundance, yet it does not deter us voting for them. If all the badly dressed, self-centered fools were driven from Congress, Washington, D.C. would have tumbleweed rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue.
We have yet to see whether Spitzer will be forgiven. He is running to be city comptroller, minding the city’s employees’ pension funds and formulating the city budget, so he is limiting his temptation to be a hypocrite to committing fraud. No one has ever suggested that Spitzer, the super-wealthy son of a real estate magnate, is anything but honest when it comes to money.
What New Yorkers need to decide is whether they want the office of comptroller to be aggressively pursued. Spitzer’s promise is that the office “is ripe for greater and more exciting use of the office’s jurisdiction.” Being city comptroller would strike most people as a form of penance, so good luck to him.
Sanford, however, is another thing. He joins a long and ever lengthening list of pious types who have been caught doing not only what they insist no one should ever do but are prepared to change the law so that anyone doing such a thing would be behind bars. Hypocrites are to be found in both parties, to be sure, but while Democrats tend to condone the relaxation of social mores that began in the Sixties, the leading lights of the anti-permissive party seem to make it a habit of being caught with their pants down with a joint in their mouth.
You may recall some of the most notorious cases of professed GOP homophobes who turned out to be gay: Mark Foley, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, Bob Allen, and Glenn Murphy. As for family-values conservatives who play the field, there is famously Newt Gingrich, who wooed his second wife while his first was being treated for cancer, and was enjoying an affair with a congressional aide while hounding President Clinton for his liaison with Monica Lewinsky. None of this prevented Gingrich from putting himself forward as the only true conservative in a succession of GOP presidential races.
As for illegal drug use, look no further than the conservatives’ chief cheerleader, Rush Limbaugh, a self-confessed addict who employed his maid to “doctor shop” for prescription painkillers, and, while routinely condemning authorities who are soft on criminals, copped a plea to avoid jail time. Beyond sex and drugs, there are fiscal hawk hypocrites who condemn economic stimuli but plead for government funds to pump up the economies in their own states.
One clue to what is going on is that the Republican party has morphed from an ultra-conservative, moralistic party into an anything-goes, let-it-all-hang-out libertarian party. Sanford was shunned by the GOP establishment, who would not put a cent into his congressional election campaign, but he soon found supporters among libertarians, including former Libertarian Party presidential candidate turned GOP Senator Ron Paul and his libertarian son Senator Rand Paul, as well as more traditional conservatives like John Boehner, who concluded that, even though his life is made a misery by the libertarian Tea Party members of the House, even a libertarian Republican was better than a Democrat.
Have things changed over time? Not much. Those who condemn President Clinton for having sexual relations with an intern seem to forget that when the upright and married Dwight Eisenhower was Supreme Commander of the Allied forces in World War Two, he had a love affair with a driver under his command, Kay Summersby. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Ike’s earlier boss, President Franklin Roosevelt, also had a most active love life.
The affairs of John F. Kennedy, too, were legion, from Marilyn Monroe to White House typists. He once said to the British prime minister Harold Macmillan, “I wonder how it is for you, Harold? If I don’t have a woman for three days, I get terrible headaches.” As Macmillan was being cuckolded by his wife Dorothy with a bisexual member of the British Parliament Bob Boothby, he was talking to the wrong guy.
Those dalliances were in far-off different times, when the press was discreet and there was such a notion as ignoring what went on behind closed doors. Now every phone is a camera and nothing is secret. Only the generosity of the voters remains unchanged.
When Grover Cleveland ran for president in 1884, Republicans got wind he had an illegitimate child and taunted him with the cry, “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” Cleveland came clean, admitted he had been paying child support for his bastard son Oscar, and won the presidency handily. In answer to “Ma, Ma, Where’s My Pa?” his supporters sang, “Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”
Nicholas Wapshott is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here.
PHOTO: Former New York governor Eliot Spitzer speaks to reporters during a campaign event in New York, July 8, 2013. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid